As the Highland Bulldogs defense showed Saturday afternoon, this is not a team running simply on a high-powered offense.
The Bulldogs’ defense produced three turnovers, two of which led directly to touchdowns, and shut down Mascoutah’s offense entirely in a 28-0 win in the Mississippi Valley Conference opener for both teams.
Highland linebacker Kyle Lane had 12 total tackles and a fumble recovery, defensive end Ian Fraser racked up 10 tackles and Jack Etter added nine total tackles and a fumble recover. Mascoutah (1-3 overall, 0-1 in the MVC) had 26 yards rushing on 20 carries in the first half against the Bulldogs.
In addition, Kyle Lane had a fumble recovery, Josh Janiszewski added an interception and Sebi Wolf had a quarterback sack.
Highland (3-1, 1-0) has won three in a row after dropping its opener at Cahokia by a single point. The Bulldogs have clobbered their last two opponents by the lopsided combined margin of 75-14.
“The offense didn’t step up today, so the defense put us on their back,” said Fraser, a 6-foot, 240-pound senior who made plays all over the field. “We just had to keep playing hard, follow our reads and do our job. We just wanted it more. We want that MVC title back and we just wanted to show off for our first game, show the conference what we’re made of.”
The point of emphasis has been delivered, especially against an especially elusive quarterback in Mascoutah’s Darius Cooley. Cooley was held to 40 yards rushing on 17 carries and six of those carries went for negative yardage.
“I’ve got all the confidence in my defense in the world, but I thought they played excellent,” Highland coach Jimmy Warnecke said. “They’re the story of this game by far. I thought we were physical; we got three turnovers on them and were just relentless to the ball. I thought we played extremely phyiscal football and everybody did their job within the scheme.”
Highland’s offense wasn’t quite as explosive as normal, but running back Trent Rakers still finished with 111 yards and two TDs on 15 carries. Warnecke likes his offense just fine, but spent most of his postgame interview session praising his defense.
“They saved us,” he said. “The field position that our defense gave us through turnovers and playing hard, stingy defense, that saved the game for us today.”
Two of Highland’s three touchdowns in the first half came courtesy of Mascoutah turnovers.
A fumble recovered by Etter at the Indians’ 9-yard line set up an early 4-yard TD run by quarterback Garrett Marti as Highland grabbed a 7-0 lead.
The Bulldogs made it 14-0 following an 80-yard drive capped by Marti’s 8-yard touchdown pass to junior Cameron Altadonna.
Mascoutah’s defense kept the Bulldogs in check for the most part on the ground, but working with short fields gave the Bulldogs an advantage.
“Defensively we’ve done a nice job all year” Mascoutah coach Josh Lee said. “Turnovers have really been a problem for us this year and the offense kind of lends itself to that, just with the option and stuff that we’re doing.
“Eliminating those (mistakes) will be the focal point of our offense, because we can’t beat a team like that turning the ball over like that. There’s no way.”
Lane’s fumble recovery at the Mascoutah 26 with 34 seconds remaining in the half led to another Highland score.
Rakers bulled his way into the end zone from six yards out with 18.1 seconds remaining in the first half. Elliott Prott’s extra-point gave Highland a 21-0 halftime lead.
Marti ran for 200 yards last week as Highland ran for 496 yards overall, but he was limited to 13 yards on nine carries by the Indians. But Marti completed 14-of-23 passes for 196 yards and one TD.
Highland sophomore receiver Sam LaPorta had five catches for 91 yards. Rakers added two receptions for 36 yards.
“I’m going to give credit to their defense,” Warnecke said. “I thought they were very disciplined with the look that they had to give to stop us. They did a good job of executing that look for four quarters against us. It confused us a little bit, in the run game especially.
“We’ve got to be lot better than that.”
Highland’s lone score in the second half came on a 96-yard drive that included a 44-yard run by Rakers that saw him shedding tacklers several times before finally being hauled down. Rakers scored on an 8-yard run and the Bulldogs’ defense gave up nothing all day.
The only big gains were runs of 28 and 49 yards by Indians’ senior Kai Cross.
“Obviously Rakers is tough, a hard-nosed kid and Marti’s a very talented quarterback,” Lee said. “I honestly was pleased with the job that we did on them, but they’re just going to keep grinding at you and eventually they’ll make you pay.”
Highland travels to Waterloo (3-1, 1-0) for the battle of the Bulldogs. Last Friday night, Waterloo traveled to Troy and upset the Triad Knights 21-14.